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Longevity will lead to Overpopulation - we need to consider our options now
Adrian Cull   Jul 4, 2015   Ethical Technology  

At some point technology will allow us to live forever. With billionaires spending millions on research [1] and huge corporations such as Google getting in on the act, very soon we are likely to see rapid advances in life expectancy – with the ultimate aim of radical life extension. All diseases will be cured, and the cellular aging that leads to the deterioration in body and mind will be slowed and eventually reversed so that everybody can choose how long they want to live for.

Inevitably this will result in a massive increase in global population.  Even if we only manage to fight off the big killers such as heart disease and cancer - leaving us with cell level aging that limits our bodies to about 120 years – that would still be a 50% increase in life expectancy . [2]

Further into the future we (or an AI) will fully comprehend how cells and bodies age and make death optional.

Although currently only around 5% of people say they would like to live forever this is partly because they struggle to see past the decrepitude of aging, which they wouldn’t suffer, and also because at the moment it is a hypothetical question – what would they say if the little pill was available right now?

There are only two logical ways to address this impending problem of too many people on a planet not designed to support us all, either:

1. prevent the increase in population or
2. find somewhere for the ever growing mass of people to live.

Taking away people’s right to life does not seem a moral or even practical solution. Most longevity treatments are also health improvement treatments – who is going to say that senior citizens should not benefit from less pain and better health in their old age? Everyone would take the pill to cure cancer and give them a few more years of life. And then the next pill which stops brain degeneration. And then the pill after that to revive their flagging energy so they can contribute more to society and enjoy a fulfilling retirement. But then, at what point is a government going to say enough is enough?

Even less likely seems to be enforced euthanasia. At what age would people be made to sacrifice themselves, and who would force them to do it? This scenario was considered in the 1960s book, film and TV series Logan’s Run. [3]

What might be possible is legislation to limit the number offspring, such as China’s one-child policy, or a hybrid where having more than one child means you forfeit your right to immortality. But again, after you’ve signed the forfeiture who is going to physically stop you seeking longevity treatments? Doctors would surely still be obliged to help prevent you from dying.

Any laws to restrict the population would likely only apply to the general population. The super-rich will be able to ignore them by moving to, or creating, a jurisdiction-free zone – perhaps longevity havens will spring up, like tax havens that exist today. Places where the elite live disease-free and are able to procreate as they desire. They would then live in a small area with a small population – but unless that exclusive society also introduced birth controls it would also inevitably suffer the same overpopulation crisis.

The second option is to cope with an ever increasing population. It is generally considered that we are reaching, or possibly have already exceeded, the sustainable population for planet Earth [4] – that is, where we cannot produce and grow enough resources to feed and sustain everyone at a reasonable living standard. This alternative can be broken down into 3 sub-options:

1. we find more places to live on the planet,
2. we each take up less room on the planet, or
3. we find some more space off of this planet.

Perhaps we can squeeze more people on the Earth; maybe we’re only scratching the surface of occupying the planet. Many a science fiction film shows cities growing high into the air, and others with humans digging down to benefit from the warm interior. There is plenty of volume available even if it would require significant engineering such as directing sunlight through fibre optic channels to grow food on multiple levels, or mastering nuclear fusion to give us unlimited energy to produce our own mini-suns wherever we need them.

If we do run out of space, can we take up less space and resources than we do today? Maybe. Possibly we will volunteer to live in a Matrix style world where we are crammed onto the planet taking up little more room than a coffin each – happily living in a virtual world where we experience more than ever possible in the physical one. Ray Kurzweil is predicting we will be able to upload ourselves by the 2030s [5] so what need would we have for physical space after that?

The final option is to find more space elsewhere in the universe. This may seem like a radical, impossible feat, but with improving technology it might be an option.  NASA’s Advanced Space Transportation Program [6]  aims to reduce Earth orbit launch costs to $200 per kilogram by 2025. To remove the 75 million people currently being born every year from this planet would cost in the region of 1.2 trillion dollars which is 1-2% of global GDP. Sounds like a lot, but it’s about the same as the world spends on defense so it is achievable with political will. Obviously there would be more costs to create habitats in space or other planets but in a few more decades the costs would fall, keeping it a feasibility.

None of these options may be life as we know it, but nor is our life today - compared to that of a thousand or even a hundred, years ago. Technology did not exist at the turn of the 20th century to support megacities such as Tokyo, New York and London – the ability to transport, service and sustain people at such densities.

Radical life extension is coming, an increase in population is inevitable, and it’s physically possible to cope with that in one or more ways. The big question is can society and technology react quickly enough? If a wonder drug appeared tomorrow, with the global population growing by about 1% per year we would have a generation to decide what to do, whether that’s building, digging or ramping up space industry investment to make the Apollo program look like a hobby. The planning would be immense and the breakdown of society a significant risk. Religion and other groups might revolt against the technology and object to tax money being spent on projects they morally object to. Laws would have to be reconsidered to cope with fundamental changes brought about by massively longer life spans . For example: loss of inheritance tax, employment opportunities if people don’t retire, and prison sentences – what does a 20 year sentence mean to someone who might live for thousands of years?

We need to be considering these options now as life expectancy is increasing and overpopulation is already with us. If we don’t plan now then as radical life extension technologies improve the decisions will become harder as they’ll affect more people with more to lose – they won’t be protesting for higher wages or equal rights, they’ll be demanding eternity.

[1] 5 billionaires who want to live forever
[2] Global Health Observatory Data Repository
[3] Wikipedia
[4] The Environmental Politics of Population and Overpopulation

Adrian Cull is the founder of the Live Forever Club which monitors advances in life extension technology as well as longevity and health research, translating these findings into practical tips for living forever.


First, “overpopulation” is malthusian mythology. We don’t have a resource shortage on this planet. We have a resource ALLOCATION problem created by groups who can’t see past immediate profits and the use of survival resources to maintain powerbases.  The US alone could feed most of the world, yet burns crops to keep prices high and wastes billions of tons of food a year. Would could quite easily provide for a population five to ten times larger than we have now if we changed HOW WE DO THINGS when it comes to food production. Hank’s written extensively about Farmscrapers and invitro meat cultivation technologies.

Second, reproduction drops in an inverse ratio with affluence. most “fast growing” populations are those still caught up in the “more kids to work the farm” economic structures that ceased to apply in the industrial world almost 100 years ago. Without a need to create many offspring to ensure a few survive, industrial societies tend to have smaller families, and many opt not to reproduce at all. Given the likely ability to control reproduction 100% by the individual without sacrificing sex, the odds are good that even that number is likely to fall off. UNWANTED children is a bigger problem in the USA than overpopulation.

Third, given the growing ability to manipulate matter at the atomic scale, the rise of 3d printers, and numerous other technologies, the ability to reduce current resource usage enormously seems likely, making the current resource needs of the world population a poor example of what will be required in the future.

So, in conclusion, population is not something I find even remotely in need of being addressed, now, or in the future. It is not, and never has been a problem. It is, and always has been, merely a means to promote austerity propaganda in an effort to sustain an economy of scarcity. So long as the illusion of “scarcity” can be maintained, the current “wealthy class” can slow down the advent of abundance.

First, all of the world’s population could fit in New Zealand with less population density than Manhattan.  Second, increased longevity has shown to decrease the rate of reproduction.  Third, some of those who are getting life extensions are the makers who will predictably increase our wealth much more than they consume.  Fourth, it is predictable by the end of the century that we will cosmopolitan escape the Earth’s gravity well, which will mean not only an immigration into space, but exponential extra-terrestrial production.  Finally, and I can’t emphasis this enough: the Singularity is coming, and wealth is created by the capacity of (men’s) minds to think.

We are about to transition from an economy based upon scarcity, to an economy based upon abundance.  Atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, the genomic revolution, artificial super intelligence, the list goes on and on.  Our increased intelligence improves our technology, and the technology boosts our intelligence (the Singularity Feedback Loop), plus every boost of technology is leveraged to increase the rate of technological improvement (the Law of Accelerating Returns).

Can only agree with the two previous commenters, that the prime assumptions in this article are clearly false.

Population increase is not a given.
Most people like sex, and we have contraceptives, so we can enjoy sex without babies.
Most people like the look of babies, but not many people actually like to devote the time and attention and resources required to bring a child to adulthood (mostly time and energy).  So reproduction rates tend to drop as real freedom increases (freedom with accompanying resources to empower choices).

Scarcity was a significant factor in history, so many of our systems have evolved to deal with that reality (most significantly market based capitalism - market value is totally scarcity based, and our political structures).

Automation allows us to deliver abundance of a large and growing set of goods and services.  This abundance could be available to every person on the planet, except that doing so would break the market based system so many people are used to - as the value of any universal abundance must drop to zero (just like oxygen in the air - very important, very abundant, zero market value).

So the big question of our age, is exactly how are we going to transition away from scarcity based thinking (money, markets and capital) and deliver the universal abundance that automated technology makes possible.

One part of that seems to be getting people to look at evolution from a systems perspective.

When one looks at the levels of complexity present in living systems over time, one can clearly see an exponential trend in the development of complexity that is linked to the emergence of new levels of cooperation.

As Axlerod showed, to be stable raw cooperation requires attendant strategies to prevent cheating strategies from overrunning the system.  There appear to be an infinite set of classes of such strategies.

The classic view of evolution is one of competition only.
That is clearly an inadequate understanding.
Cooperation has been taking an ever more dominant role over time.

It now seems clear that the next step in evolution is for cooperation to completely dominate competition; with a resulting exponential increase in diversity at all levels.  Universal cooperation of sapient entities, at the level of respecting the life and liberty of every individual, and delivering systems that ensure the survival and self actualising needs of every individual are met.

From this perspective one thing is abundantly clear - all market based systems, and all centrally based systems of control, have reached the end of their social utility.

Long term security and prosperity now demand of us that we develop new levels of systems that are based in abundance and cooperation, empowered by technology.

The likely outcome of this would seem to be a population of individuals scattered on every set of spectra one can imagine, including but not limited to: biological to silicon based sapience, biological to mechanical bodies, .....

We do have some genuine limits to deal with.

The energy balance of this planet.
The nutrient flows of this planet (particularly phosphorous), we need to get much smarter at recycling at every level.

And it seems that these are relatively simple engineering challenges in a sense, as is every aspect of global climate change.

Once we have a set of machines that can be fully automated in the production and maintenance of themselves (and under human control - not AI or self aware, just programmed systems), then we can do all our serious engineering projects off planet, using mass from the far side of the moon in the first instance.

We are not short of energy - the Sun is a huge source of energy, and already our solar cell technology is reasonably efficient at turning sunlight into electricity.

Our biggest threat is now clearly our unexamined assumptions about the cultural systems we find ourselves in, money and markets foremost amongst them.

The whole concept of economy is based upon central control (control of the household, scaled up).

Rather than control, we need now to move beyond economics, into finding effective strategies to allow widely divergent paradigms and technologies to co-exist, with as little interference with each other as possible.
Many promising approaches out there.
Elinor Ostrom’s work seems particularly interesting in this regard, if one steps it up a level.
Many practical examples of this in action, which can be scaled up as required.

I am impressed by the length and accurate analysis of TedHowardNJ.  I would just add that given the exponential nature of the rate of technological growth, and the fact that we are at the elbow of such a mind bending curve, linear analysis simply in inadequate to reasonably analyse it.

In other words, it is absolutely true that 1. population increase is not a given, and 2. scarcity is not a given.  On the other hand, while those two factors are the main operants in the linear analysis in the above article upon which we are commenting, there is a third factor that implicitly is present: the minds operating within the economic system.

“Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” - Ayn Rand

Instead, soon there will be thinking machines that far surpass man’s capacity to think.  This will, predictably, dramatically affect our economy, and every other aspect of life, including transportation, entertainment, housing options, and trade.  In fact, it is trite to say that everything will change when the Singularity emerges.

Hi Dobermanmac
Nice to start my 60th birthday by being transported 9,000 miles from my home in Kaikoura, New Zealand to New Jersey wink

Agree with you that exponentials will play an increasing role in the reality of being human (in multiple domains, computation, technology, time, space, possibilities, strategies, relationships, levels of awareness).

Agree that the capacity of the human brain is potentially unlimited, and that the greatest limits are those imposed by the unexamined assumptions of our culture.  I love the quote from Mark Twain “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”  So many levels on which that is operant right now.  Most people have yet to start even taking baby steps into seriously investigating ontology and epistemology.

Rand was partly correct.  Man’s capacity to think gives us potentially unlimited technology, and unlimited modes of valuation, and unlimited levels of awareness.  However, any particular individual will be at some specific location on the infinite topology of the intersection of all distinctions present.

The idea of economy comes from Greek oikos, to manage the household. 
There are two major senses of that.
In the classical hierarchical sense, there is a leader, and everyone else does what they are told.
Another possibility is everyone being aware of what needs doing, and reaching agreement by consensus as to who will do what.
Consensus decision making is extremely powerful if one has lots of time to play with.  If one is dealing with strongly time bound constraints, the most effective strategy is to have a single leader who commands where necessary.  Having had 17 years at sea, mostly skippering, the best crews knew exactly what was needed and did it, without any commands from me.  It was only in the most dire of circumstances that every command needed to be obeyed instantly and without question.  And there was always time for review of such performance once we were back in sheltered waters and out of the storm.

I am very supportive of the latter style of leadership, where all individuals consciously consent to being led, and the leader works at developing the competencies of every individual in the areas that most interest them, and delegating leadership whenever and where-ever possible.

So if one takes this widest of possible views of the term economy, then yes we must have such a thing.  But if one uses it in the most commonly understood sense of market based exchange values, then clearly, logically, it is rapidly reaching the end of its social utility, and is currently causing at least as many problems as it solves.  Market based systems seem clearly to this observer to be shifting from the space of being solution-multipliers to the space of being problem-multipliers (creating more problems than they solve).

As to the notion of singularity, many common aspects of that appears to actually be based in linear thinking.
When one starts to look at the space of all possible problems, yes, certainly there are some problems that scale linearly with computing power, and increasing computing power does allow solutions to that class of problems to expand exponentially.  And automation without AGI allows for very much the same outcome.

When one looks at the more interesting classes of problems, that don’t scale linearly, one sees something quite different.
Some problems scale as simple exponentials.  Even some of the simpler solutions to the equations of QM scale at the 7th power.  So AI isn’t going to make significantly more progress than us on that front.

Then there is the whole issue of the class of possible truth values.
Most people only think in terms of the simplest of possible binary classes - true and false.  Raechel Garden did an interesting paper demonstrating how classical and QM logic can be reconciled by allowing a tri-state system, of true, false and unknown.  Other possible domains exist where all truth values are probability based with the probability of certainty of knowledge of either true or false asymptotically approaching zero.

Then there is the whole set of classes of systems where the halting problem comes into play - fractal based problems, non-computable problems, problems where the nature of computability is uncertain, etc.

So AI will certainly add interest, and it isn’t necessarily going to make noticeably greater progress on the more interesting problems than we humans are making.  The term “singularity” is a little “over-hyped” - and certainly it will be interesting.

When we have fully functional molecular level manufacturing the concept of trade really loses any meaning.  What possible reason would anyone have to exchange anything?

There are many ways in which the whole idea of markets is and must come to an end.  Control by money has a large and exponentially growing set of problems with it, and a reducing set of useful outcomes.

The question then becomes, what alignment and agreements can we generate to create interesting interactions and possibilities together?

TedHowardNJ “Nice to start my 60th birthday by being transported 9,000 miles from my home in Kaikoura, New Zealand to New Jersey.”  Wow, that is an uncommonly far trip - congrats on the big six-oh!

You have certainly delineated and analysed the dynamics of problem solving, and are spot on.  Furthermore, leadership, economics, and exponentials.

I have been recently reminded of seeing organisms being put into an environment for which they have not been evolved for.  It began watching the cable series “Ballers” about pro-athletes who grew up in an environment of scarcity, and now live in an environment of abundance.  That led to thoughts of people who won the lottery and their misadventures in the land of unaccustomed abundance.  Humans in general who have always experienced economies based upon scarcity, and who may soon start to experience instead a paradigm change to an “economy” based upon abundance.

Furthermore, for billions of years (arguably) life has progressed through the agonizingly slow process of evolution.  Now with the genomic revolution we are going to be able to self-evolve.  Adult gene therapy has become a reality (although still in the human experimental stage), allowing people to choose the genetic augmentations of their choice, without fouling future generation’s genome.

Finally, through mechanical augmentation or chemical boosting people are going to be able to be much smarter.  Furthermore, with the incredible speedups of computer processing plus very inventive software, artificial minds are going to be almost unimaginably smart.

The result of all three of these trends (novel environments, genetic manipulation, and augmented or artificial minds) will be a Singularity that not only voids Malthusianism, but surpasses the bounds of our imagination.  Even now I can barely keep up with the technological breakthroughs, and I consider myself extremely adaptive, gifted, and smart (in relation to the general population of the US).

When I see an article like the above written, that basically is linking longevity and population to scarcity and poverty, it makes me wonder if the author his a realization of the rate of increase of the rate of technological progress we are currently experiencing.

In the 20th century, half of the progress occurred in the last 20 years.  From 2000 to today we’ve had another 20th century worth of progress.  It is predicted that in 7 more years we will have another 20th century worth of progress.

Hi Dobermanmac

Most of what you write I agree with, with a couple of notable exceptions.

I’ve been thinking about this stuff for 41 years.  I have a fairly active mind.  I can imagine quite a bit.  My imagination doesn’t appear to have any bounds, only current limits of exploration.

No one can keep up with all technological and thought breakthroughs.  Anyone who thinks they can is deluding themselves.

My concern is not technology as such, it is the systemic response to technology.

There appear to be infinite possible levels of awareness.
It appears that any level of awareness is capable of trumping any other level of awareness in specific circumstances.

Neither awareness nor technology is any absolute guarantee of survival, and both do seem to increase probabilities.

In the widest of strategic senses, it seems clear that cooperation has the highest probability of long term survival.

People can adapt if they are given appropriate contexts.

I would counter the points about:
” Population increase is not a given.” The fact that polls show more than 80%+ of women would like to have children. I have not seen any statistic that has said a population is having less than 1 child per person.

Sex and procreation are encoded in our genetics. There will always be population growth, especially with the increase of lifespans. People are selfish and see the world on the microlevel instead of the macro.


“Scarcity was a significant factor in history, so many of our systems have evolved to deal with that reality”. Population growth and scarcity are obviously linked. Human beings are just like a bacteria that will flourish if given the right environment. If food, shelter and energy were just freely supplied in abundance to everyone then there would not be much restraint to continue multiplying. Technological development will solve a lot of problems, but like any technology it will not likely be available for everyone. For example an MRI machine. A future more similar to the movie Elysium comes to mind than a utopia with equal experiences for all.

The question should not be “can the world support 10 billion or a 100 billion people?”, but instead “do you want to radically transform everything to support an unlimited number of people?”. The answer is no. I would rather see all lost forestation in Sumatra, New Zealand, Iceland and elsewhere come back. I would rather see a more natural world than a planet from Star Wars, than a completely man made monstrosity filled shoulder to shoulder with people.

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